Carl Diggs looked into 3-year-old Auntavia
Atkins’ eyes, open for the last time. Alone in a Cleveland hospital
room with his family crying outside, Diggs held his niece in his
arms as the life slowly drained from her body.

Kate Green

“I could just hear her gasping,” Diggs said. “I just held my
niece until her last breath. To me, that’s one of the hardest
things I’ve ever had to do in my life. I never thought I’d be in
that situation.”

Diggs was in that situation because Auntavia’s mother and Diggs’
sister, Angel Diggs, couldn’t handle being in the room when the
doctors pulled the plug on her daughter. Neither could Diggs’
brother, Grover Diggs.

“We asked Carl, ‘Are you going to be able to do this?’ ” Grover
said. “Carl said ‘yeah.’

“He was pretty much the heart and soul of the family that day.
Having him there made it a lot easier. A lot of people couldn’t do
that.”

“It was just hard to hold my niece … I never thought I’d see
any of (my nieces and nephews) go before I did,” Carl said. “I held
her in my arms and just prayed. I just wanted to be strong for my
sister.”

Everyone’s always counted on Diggs, even when it would have been
easy for him to be weak.

Diggs, 22, became a father at the age of 17. And in the past
year and a half, he’s had to overcome being shot in the back of his
left leg, breaking his right leg and now losing Auntavia.

Diggs’ friends, family and teammates collectively wonder, “How
does he do it?”

According to Diggs, there’s no choice but to be strong.
Otherwise, he “probably would have given up everything.”

Family ties

Angel Diggs, 29, was just starting to get her life together when
Auntavia died. For the past year, Angel’s three children had been
living in a court-approved foster home, but Diggs’ mother, Bernita
Diggs, said Angel was on her way to getting her kids back in the
near future.

Angel’s children were put into the hands of 40-year-old Ethel
Wilbert-Bethea of Cortland, Ohio. The Diggs family is accusing
Wilbert-Bethea of murdering Auntavia.

“The things that were done to her caused her death,” Bernita
said.

A representative from the Warren, Ohio, Court of Common Pleas
said the State of Ohio is charging Wilbert-Bethea with four counts
of endangering children, one count of felonious assault and one
count of murder. Wilbert-Bethea is being held in the county jail on
$1 million bond. The pre-trial hearing is set for Nov. 4.

Diggs first heard about Auntavia’s serious condition after the
Central Michigan game Aug. 30. He dropped football and all his
other responsibilities in Ann Arbor and headed straight for his
home in Warren.

“He had to go down and keep his family together,” said Courtney
Morgan, a Michigan offensive tackle and Diggs’ roommate. “He shed a
tear, but crying wasn’t really going to solve the problem. He had
to be the strong one.”

Said Bernita, Carl’s mother: “After the first game, I had to
tell him about his niece … she would never be right and would
always be in a vegetable state. He was determined to come back
before they pulled the plug. At the funeral, I was a wreck, and he
held up for me.”

Diggs would argue that Bernita has been holding up for him since
day one. Raising her kids in the Warren projects, Bernita had to
rule with an iron fist and instill strong family values in her
kids.

“I did not play. I did not play,” Bernita said. “It’s hard to
raise children these days, but it’s exceptionally hard to raise a
young black man. But they always had a job, and I always kept them
involved in something.”

The youngest of four siblings, Diggs has filled more of an
older-brother role for his family. Everyone in the family can’t
help but be proud of Diggs and respect what he’s accomplished,
making a name for himself outside of Warren.

“His nieces and nephews really look up to him; he’s at Michigan
playing football,” said Morgan, who considers himself a part of the
Diggs family. “Not a lot of people where he comes from get a chance
to go to college and get his degree. He’s the youngest sibling, but
he kind of has to carry the burden of being one of the oldest. He
has the oldest-sibling-type responsibilities.”

Grover says losing Auntavia has made Carl even more mature than
he was before – mature, but not immune to the pain the rest of the
family is feeling.

“Still to this day right now, it’s hard for me to deal with,”
Diggs said. “Her name pops up in my mind at weird times, and I just
think about everything that went on. I get on my knees and just
pray to God.”

A different kind of responsibility

Since Auntavia’s death, Diggs has called Grover or Bernita just
about every day to check on his five-year-old daughter, Deja.
Because Diggs can’t be in Warren to take care of her, he’s forced
to live vicariously through his mother and siblings where Deja is
concerned.

“Everyone basically has to give a helping hand and add Deja into
their schedule,” Grover said. “When he’s away at school, I make
sure the stuff she needs gets to her. Like when she has plays in
school, I’ll go watch them, or I’ll go to her parent-teacher
conference.”

On Deja’s first day of kindergarten, Diggs made sure Bernita,
whom Deja lives with, watched her and took a picture of her going
into school.

“It’s hard at times because I don’t get to see her as much as
I’d like to,” Diggs said. “She’s growing up fast. When I go home
for a break, any time I get a chance to go home, she’s always with
me. I can’t go anywhere without her being right on my hip.”

When Deja comes to Michigan football games, she can’t put the
game program down.

“She gets the program and points his picture out,” Bernita said.
“It’s all she talks about.”

But when it comes to the time Diggs does have with Deja, who
reportedly looks just like her dad, football is the last thing on
his mind.

“I can recall us going out to Chuck E. Cheese’s sometimes,”
Grover said, “and people will come up to Carl and say, ‘Good game,’
but he’ll say, ‘I appreciate it, but I’m with my family now.’ It
will be in a nice way, and they’ll understand. They’re fathers,
too.”

Diggs is comfortable with being a father now, but when he first
found out his high-school girlfriend was pregnant, he wasn’t so
calm.

“It was a big shock. I was nervous, especially with me wanting
to go to college,” Diggs said. “Me and (Deja’s) mother talked, and
she gave me the go-ahead. It was the best thing for me to do,
having a baby, to further my education. Give our daughter a better
opportunity.”

Diggs has five credits left before he can graduate with a degree
in sports management and communications, which has been his No. 1
goal since he arrived at school.

“I remember a time where he said, ‘I don’t know if I can do
this,’ ” Grover said. “Go to school, get a degree and play
football. It was a goal he didn’t think he could do.”

Diggs had Deja to make the decision for him.

“She’s five years old, so she understands what Daddy’s doing up
here,” he said. “If we’re going to have a better future for her, I
have to get that degree.”

Bernita will never forget the day she and Carl were driving home
from football practice when he was 15.

“He just said, ‘I want to use my God-given talent, go to college
and be the best that I can,’ ” Bernita said.

“All Carl has to take care of is Carl and Deja. No one else,
though.”

An inspiration

The Michigan football team has also witnessed Diggs’ unwavering
mentality the past five years.

In May 2002, Diggs (left leg) and teammate Markus Curry (back)
were shot outside an off-campus party. Diggs, in line to play
significant minutes at inside linebacker, had to devote himself to
getting his leg ready for the opener against Washington.

“(Me and Markus) kind of joke about it a lot,” Diggs said. “We
knew it could have been worse, especially for Markus. If the bullet
were an inch higher, he could have been wounded pretty badly. It’s
a lesson that we learned, and we just moved on.”

Diggs would have to move on again. After starting most of the
season at linebacker, Diggs suffered a broken right leg against
Ohio State. He needed surgery to be ready for opening day this
season.

“I think Carl is an inspiration with how he just keeps it
rolling,” Morgan said. “He was shot, he’s broken his leg, and a lot
of people could have quit and just given up. You don’t see him
hanging his head a lot.”

Diggs inspired his teammates enough to be named captain for his
senior season. And when he spoke up after Michigan’s 30-27 loss to
Iowa – a rare occurrence for the soft-spoken Diggs – people
listened.

“He just basically set the record straight with everyone in the
lockerroom,” Morgan said. “That it shouldn’t be like this. It was
the most I’d heard him say in a while (to the team). When Carl says
something, they know it comes from the heart because he’s not going
to say much.”

What Diggs has gone through the past five years says enough.
When he looks back on his Michigan career, even Diggs can’t believe
he’s made it this far.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” he said. “I’ve never thought
I’d be shot, or thought I’d lose a niece so young. Sometimes I ask
myself how I was able to come through a lot of things. My mom told
me I was a strong person, but I never believed her until now.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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